Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This economical single-sentence poem manages to propose various images for the locomotive. Some of them are natural, playful, and benign, while others are threatening or overwhelming. Between these two very different representations arises an ambiguity that is one of the themes of the poem.

In one sense, this ambiguity is a question of perspective. Seen from afar, perhaps, the train is a small, toylike thing, but at close range, it is gigantic. To step around piles of mountains is to pass beyond boundaries, which is in a sense to dislocate the horizon. To peer in windows is to intrude past other kinds of boundaries, to cause private life to become public, which is to violate the border between interior and exterior realms. A star is a thing which looks tiny but which science states is in fact huge almost beyond comprehension, so that comparing the locomotive to a star is to make a thing that appeared small and yet became huge seem infinitely small again. The poem, by playing with perspective, reveals the ambiguity that is intrinsic to the seen world.

In another sense, the ambiguity is one of attitude. The beast described does much consuming—it laps, licks, feeds, and pares rocks like vegetables. “Prodigious” is only one step away from prodigality, or excessive consumption. In addition, at the end of its breathless ride, like a horse, it arrives at the stable door, inside which it will presumably be fed. Meanwhile, it is...

(The entire section is 491 words.)